I posted this on Fresh Ink a few days ago, hoping to get some feedback. It’s the first chapter of my book, and I just realised this morning that I hadn’t posted it on here. I won’t be making a habit of this. Actually, this is probably going to be the sole exception, but as I said, I wanted some feedback. So hit me with it—good and bad.
The image I’ve included in this post is from the 2012 game released by Arkane Studios and Bethesda Softworks, called Dishonored. Haven’t played it—yet—but the world they created for it has helped inspire my own for this story.
This is an early draft. Since then, I’ve added more to it, as well as edited it.
I’m huddled in the overhang of a doorway waiting for Ordree and Leon to come back from their scout so we can return to the loft together. They should be back soon, so I’ll give them five more minutes before quitting. There aren’t any clocks this side of town, but the faint clinking of the gears from the Industrial Quarter is as good alternative as any. Once I get to three hundred clicks, I’ll leave and let them get back on their own. Loitering will eventually catch unwanted attention. Something we definitely do not need right now.
Wrapping my arms around myself, I grip my sides until my fingers begin to ache. The cover from the building I’ve sought refuge under is doing nothing to keep me dry from the rain which hasn’t let up since yesterday. Or maybe it was the day before that? But coupling that with the wind, well, it’s bloody cold!
I give up on hugging myself and move my hands to my face, cupping them over my mouth. Summoning what little warmth is hidden inside me, I breathe into them only to watch with tired eyes as it escapes into the wintry air, sending tendrils of steam up towards the grey sky. Nothing is going to make the wait any less depressing. I might as well try and get comfortable. So I lean back against the door, feeling the groove of the wood press against my head. My eyes grow heavy and soon begin to droop, so I push off from the door and stand up straight. My body protests at my rigid stance; my muscles ache to sit. But I can’t afford to let my guard down. They could be anywhere.
A ribbon of anxiety ripples through me. It rushes up from my gut to spur my heart and lungs, getting them ready for flight. I glance up and down the street again, but other than what looks like an overgrown crow picking at its feathers, it’s deserted. I relax slightly, tapping my thumbs to each finger in time with the echo of the gears and I look around at the buildings while I wait.
Technically, I’m still Lowtown, but from the look of the townhouses running along the river bank, you wouldn’t know it. You’d only have to walk one street back to see what life south of the Laverne really looks like. The waterfront is nothing but a well-planned architectural cover-up. These done-up townhouses mask the brooding darkness of the poor man’s city lurking behind. They were built to hide us from the Purses living up in Hightown, lest their eyes burn from the sight and make them blind. Though their being blind wouldn’t make much of a difference, really. If only, it would just make it legitimate.
Taking the time to look at the stretch of houses on either side of me, I can see how each owner has tried to squeeze in as many symbols of their wealth and uniqueness. Flaunting your fortunes looks like a given here. There are embellishments carved into the stonework and manicured gardens in front of each one—though why you’d prefer to grow flowers over food is beyond me. And even now in the winter with the trees stripped bare and left to stand naked against the wind, I can see how crazy devoted they all are to keeping it tamed, as if it’s some sort of unspoken rule. The branches have been clipped, making them look like broken bones and the bushes that grow lush in the Green Time now look like dark creatures climbing out of the earth.
My stomach rumbles and I groan quietly under my breath. I don’t know what I’d do to eat something warm. I used to get so sick of eating soup almost every day. But now if I were given a bowl of even potato and leek soup, I’d just about inhale it. The cans that we’d been living off were at room temperature. And it’s nearing the Dark Time and we have no heating. I think you can put two and two together.
Maybe Ordree and Leon could get some bread—I don’t care if it’s stale.
I lick at my cracked lips reflexively and the wind licks up the moisture. It pulls my skin taught making me wince. I doubt it they’d be able to pinch a loaf anyway; everything gets expensive in the cold seasons and the vendors watch over their wares like hawks.
My eyes wander away from the townhouses to the river. The rolling clouds have darkened the water, turning the ripples into scales and making it look as though there were a serpent snaking its way through the city. The water protects the nobles on the hill, keeping them well out of our reach. While we Roaches are left to live our lives forgotten in the mist.
Life down here is certainly worlds apart from Hightown. The authority of the Kyzar and his Courts hangs on the tongues of every Purse and lingers in the air. He rules over us too, but the city is just so different down here. We live in another time and it’s easy to forget the reach of someone’s power when you’ve only ever heard his name. Few people have ventured into the Diamond District and even fewer have seen the face of this man who calls himself ruler. Not that this matters in the slightest; anyone can lead if they’re as feared and joined with as many followers as he is.
The Purses don’t cross over into Lowtown and even if they did, most Roaches wouldn’t know how to speak proper to them anyhow. They have their own ways just as we have ours. And while we mightn’t see nothing of the Courts in the dark of the city, that didn’t mean there wasn’t order. I guess to an outsider that it wouldn’t be too easy to spot since I doubt we look any different in their eyes. It’s best to keep from catching someone’s interest down here. You don’t exactly go flaunting your “assets”—not unless you’d be fine if someone just so happened to take a liking to it…and an extreme disliking to you.
Order is something we don’t often talk about—and trust me, that “Do No Discuss” list is long. Basically, if you want to avoid trouble, all you have to do is nothing. You see nothing, you say nothing, and nothing happens to you. I never really got that; nothing happens to us anyway. But I think I’d choose my kind of “nothing” over the permanent kind any day. So while we mightn’t talk about the ins and outs of caste down here, we sure can see it.
In the Grey, where the polluted mists of steam are heaviest, that’s where the lowest of the low live. From this distance, on the safer side of the Laverne—and I use the term loosely—I can see that much of my neighbouring district is lost to the blanket of cloud and steam. And when the sky is dark, like it’s becoming now, you have to look real hard but you can still see the tops of buildings peeking out as if they’re reaching for a breath of fresh air.
Now, I don’t think I could say I was a fugitive since that would make it seem like I had a chance of escaping them, but I was, effectively, a prisoner. A prisoner who was just lucky enough to dodge the shackles—this time. So the only thing that’s made these past few days any less dark, was that I was stuck in this district and not the shadowed one ‘cross river.
I notice then that my nose isn’t crinkled. I mean, you do get used to the smell of Lowtown, especially after having grown up in it, but sometimes it really does get too much. Oftentimes I see people walking around with a disgusted scowl permanently etched onto their faces, adding to the lines that tell tales of hunger and cold. Here though, the air here is slightly different. It’s not so tainted. I wonder what they pay to sleep somewhere that doesn’t smell so strong of poverty.
Deep in Lowtown, even without the ominous clouds lurking over Pryderi, the streets always have a gloomy air about them. The buildings are so tall they seem to lean in on each other. But that’s about as friendly as it gets. No one talks to no one if they can help it—a fact of life that’s never bothered me since I’m none too good at the whole “talking” business…or just relating to people in general. At least not with people who I think are idiots. And sadly, that seems to be most people I meet. ‘Cept Ordree. She’s pretty mellow and she doesn’t see the need to fill the quiet with words. She seems like she’s getting more comfortable with me too, and I with her. Something that isn’t easy, though whether I make it so is debatable. Leon’s alright I guess, but I wouldn’t bother with him if he wasn’t with Ordree. They’re kind of a two for one deal, so I do just that: deal. As for the rest of them, they were just in the right place at the right time.
For them, at least. As for me? I literally want swallow a bullet every time one of them opens their mouth. I don’t though, for three reasons. One: I’ve only got three bullets. Two: as much as it seems that Ordree is a fast learner, she wouldn’t survive without me. And three: a Dumas doesn’t quit. So I bite the bullet, and…not?
I shake my head and sigh when I think about why I have a gun in the first place. I should probably just sell it. They’re pretty rare so I’d get quite a bit for it. But then the rarity would come back to bite me since they’d be able to trace it. Not many people have guns and the ones who do tend to have them personalised. As soon as looking at it they’d know whose it was. So if I were to go with that plan, they’d know that I was still kicking it around Lowtown within the hour. Sure, someone might’ve picked it up off my dead body, but I could handle myself better than most, so that end like that was unlikely. They’d know if I were dead ‘cause it would’ve been done at their hands.
Despite the cold of the wind and rain, I feel my insides prickle with warmth. It’s kind of nice at first, but the warmth doesn’t manage to spread very far, so now I’m angry andfrustrated. That night was loud…and so confusing. Bodies rammed into each other as everyone scrambled to get out. And I still have no idea what really happened.
The day had started out just fine; after I trained with Blair, I went to the library to read. I loved how quiet it was in there. That wasn’t because there was a “no talking” rule though, it was more because of the sad fact that hardly any Roaches knew how to spell their own name let alone read it. There were some who were lucky enough to have been taught some words in preparation for their “career.” But you didn’t need to learn much to become a baker or a factory worker. That’s why you won’t see the written word around here much; those who can’t read get by well enough using pictures and symbols.
Unlike others my age—or anyone of any age for that matter who I knew—Garridan had taught me to read books and how to write more than my name, just like his father had done for him. It was a requirement for anyone who entered the Seekers’ inner circle. Not that I ever really “entered” it; that would imply that I was once on the outside. I skipped that initiation and was instead borne straight into the inner circle to live a life of privilege amongst the poor. Garridan taught me many things that most children would never learn. And even though I would always be known as a “Roach” by those on the hill, I never experienced the cold life that caged so many of them.
I remember reading a book a few years ago that said that there used to be a group of desert people who wrote with pictures. I compared them to the ones I’d see in the streets when I went exploring on my own. Ours were different. For one thing, I could understand them easily. And for another, we didn’t have nearly as many. I’d look at our simple pictures that would tell you if a shop sold food or shoes, and I couldn’t stop the feeling of shame that spread from my gut and blossomed on my cheeks. After hundreds, maybe even thousands of years and despite some of us knowing the written word, most were still a simple people who used pictures because they were never taught of letters. And what’s worse is that it seems the Purses like it better this way. I mean, it was their fathers who tore down the schools and made teaching and learning literacy illegal. It only took a few generations for the knowledge to become all but lost in Lowtown, and those who knew it where Guild members and charged for their services.
Anyway, I’ve gone off topic. The night the noises began, I was reading an old, tattered book about a girl who fell down a hole. At first I just heard yelling. Then the sound of rushed footsteps started up. I walked to the door that separated me from the Hall and rested my ear against the wood. The noises grew louder, frantic. And then a gun went off.
It pierced through the din and the silence became almost as loud as the voices and feet it followed. I was frozen to the spot. My feet couldn’t to move; my mind couldn’t force them to.
Guns were rare enough, so it was even rarer to fire one. They were only used for special occasions, like killing someone you really hated. And someone had just fired a gun insidethe walls of the Seekers’ Guild. Even a deaf-mute would know that something had gone wrong. I had no idea what, but there was no way I was going to wait around for answers.
When I was younger, I used to roam the twisted corridors of our Guild—a childish pastime of desire to find secret rooms in your home that proved to be invaluable that night. I left the library and headed for Garridan’s quarters where on one of my wanderings I had lucked upon a secret passage hidden behind the cabinet next to the hanging map of Pryderi.
Other than those with me, I don’t even know who or how many made it out that night. Some would’ve died, but many would’ve already sided with another Guild, ready for a takeover. We live this life prepared and we’re nothing if not survivors. They don’t call us Roaches for nothing.
It was raining that night too, like it always does here in Pryderi—although it wasn’t asbloody cold as it is now. I scowl up at the sky hoping that if there were such a thing as gods then maybe they’d take pity on me and quit with the rain. And turn the thermostat up a degree or two.
I’ve read about them, the deities. We were lucky enough to have a book on them in our library. Our illegal library. I heard that when they founded our city, they outlawed the belief in gods and burned any and every book they could find that featured their tales. Centuries later, I doubt anyone knew anything about them. I didn’t see what was so special about them though; most of the time their lives and stories didn’t seem no different to those in the other books I’d read.
Out of habit my hand trails down my body and I feel the hardness of Garridan’s revolver through my clothes, tucked into the waistband of my pants. It was the only thing of his I managed to grab on the way out. Come to think of it, I don’t know why he’d left it behind. But I’m not about to lose it now, so I carry it with me at all times. I don’t think we’d run into that much trouble along the banks, being so close to Hightown and all, but you never know. See? Always prepared.
I can feel the heaviness of sleep creep in from lack of movement and I realise that I haven’t been paying attention to the rhythm of the gears.
Shite… I look up. The sky doesn’t look much different. I look down. The shadows have hardly shifted. Not much time has passed. I’d rather not chance it though. And I’m just about to step off onto the pavement when I catch movement to my left. I stiffen only to relax a second later when I notice two people walking hand in hand. Lucky, I think to myself, ‘cause it could’ve been a whole lot worse.
Leon hugs Ordree to his side, shielding her against the sudden gust of wind. She smiles up at him and they get caught in each other’s eyes. He smiles and leans down, placing a soft kiss on her lips. They’re acting every bit the couple deep in love. Only it’s not an act—they really are that annoying.
Stretching the fabric of my jacket to its limit, I pull it as close around me as I can before setting off down the sidewalk. I continue like this for about three hundred clicks or so, glancing back to make sure Ordree and Leon are following, before turning right and then slipping into an alley. They’re not too far behind so I lean against the grimy brick and wait. My jacket is way past dirty now, so a little more doesn’t bother me. About a minute later, they enter the alley, hand-in-hand, and I’m relieved to see that their bag looks full.
‘You good?’ I ask.
‘Yep, no problem,’ Ordree says.
‘Good.’ I look up and down the alley. ‘Better get back then.’
They both nod and we set off to exit onto the street on the opposite side of the building.
As quiet as Ordree is, she sure is good getting good at this. I honestly didn’t think she had it in her, stealing, that is. She grew up in the Seekers’ Guild with me, but her parents were on the outer rings. They fed our Guild snippets of information and supplies in exchange for the protection our sign could give them. Me, on the other hand, I was a born and bred Seeker, trained so that one day I’d be named Prinkeps. But Ordree, she has a real knack for blending in. She’d have done well as a Seeker; no one ever seems to notice her, and she works even better with Leon. Who would ever think that the sweet, loved up couple had sticky fingers? I didn’t, that’s for sure. But they’re the best out of our group, aside from me, of course.
Garridan was never really the fathering type; he was more of a mentor to me. You know, tough love and all that shite. I suppose being Prinkeps, he had to be tough, but I have memories of him that are worlds apart from the Garridan I know now. He did me well though, prepared me for life in Lowtown and for my life as a Seeker. Apart from reading and writing, I can loosen nearly any lock I come across—a handy skill when it came to finding a hideout.
I’m quick, too. And I can defend myself, although I’m not very built or very tall. And I haven’t exactly eaten very well since we got out. So even with the blade tucked in my shoe or the gun in my pants, I don’t think I’d come out victor if I ran into a Wolf or a Vigilante right now.
I turn my attention back to the dark maze of streets, constantly scanning our surroundings as we make our way back to the warehouse. I make sure to keep my pace level and in time with the gears. I don’t want the sound of my footsteps to prick someone’s ears. Heavy footfalls are not tolerated in my line of work. Being “invisible” is the difference between life and death and earning some coin.
Nice and easy, Eden. I hear Garridan’s gruff voice in my head. I nod to myself and shove my hands into my jacket pockets, dipping my head against the rain. I fight the shiver as cold water trickles down the back of my neck.
I’m not stupid. I know it’s not really his voice and just my mind masking my own stream of consciousness in his tone. But it’s like the voice of reason and I’m thankful for it all the same. It’s been the thing that’s kept us alive these past few days. I do feel an ache in my heart whenever I hear it, though. I didn’t see him in my haste to leave the Guild and it’s been four days now. I just hope he’s doing the same thing as me, that he’s lying low in a leaky loft in some abandoned warehouse. That he’s trying to find answers. That he’s trying to find me.
Thinking of him sets off a chain of memories, flooding my mind and clouding my eyes. Memories of my mother, Leiana, before she was murdered. Memories of the family we used to be and then memories of the family I found amongst my fellow Seekers. Memories of me as a cheeky little bugger playing pranks on any easy target—aside from Garridan that is. I got him good once, but after the punishment I got from that, well, let’s just say that I never went there again. He wasn’t a tyrant, mind you, but he was a commanding man—you didn’t cross him. But now, he’s missing. And everyone knew that if you didn’t come back from a job, then you were never coming back.
Is that why it happened then? He didn’t return so everyone just thought our Prinkeps dead and the Seekers no more? The pit in my stomach grows. I don’t want to think about that.
I just…it’s still just too strange. It feels wrong to even begin thinking like that. My whole…everything is in that Guild. Before I was officially made a Seeker the day I turned fifteen, I was just a kid training to be one. Before I had it inked onto my arm, I used to draw the cross of key and knife onto my skin. It’s always been a part of me; I’ve always been a part of it. But if the Seekers were gone, then I had no idea who the hell I was anymore. I don’t think I ever even knew who I was anyway. I was just Eden Dumas, daughter of Garridan Dumas, Prinkeps of the Seekers. My identity was forged before I was, my path already laid out. I would train and work under Garridan, and when he retired, I would take over. That’s just how it was in the Guilds. But if the Seekers were dead…then so was I. This whole thing just makes me want to scream my lungs out ‘til they bleed, but now’s not the time to get emotional.
There is no place for sadness. There is no place for anger. My mind sifts through my memories, finding the words he used to say to me when I was a kid. You’d think he would’ve included fear as well. But I learned that fear can be a useful tool when you’re on a job, or even just walking the streets. It keeps you alert, cautious. You’ll only have trouble if you let your fear take seed in you and water it with irrational thought.
When we near the warehouse, we each split up to take a different route in. It’s best to avoid drawing attention, so we always enter solo. I slip in through a window and take a few seconds to make sure that there’s no one here that shouldn’t be. Once I’m positive I’m alone, I head for the stairs—not too quickly though. Even though I’m “home” I never really relax. My body is constantly on edge, waiting for a signal or an odd sound. I’m waiting for the need to run.
Most people would call me paranoid. I think they do too. I’ve seen the others talking about me when they think I’m not paying attention. They really are idiots—I’m always paying attention. But if looking like a meerkat is the price I hate to pay to keep my freedom then I’ll look like a ficking meerkat.
I laugh quietly to myself as I walk up the stairs. This? Hiding out in a run-down warehouse where I won’t even be able light a fire to keep my toes from freezing off for fear of being found, is not my idea of liberty.
When I reach the landing, I knock on the heavy sliding door four times before giving it a swift kick. The first night we stayed here I decided we should have a signal to show whoever’s over the other side that it’s safe. After a beat, I wrench the sliding door open.
Stepping inside the loft we’ve claimed, I see that Ordree and Leon aren’t back yet. They shouldn’t be too far behind. In any case, I close the door. They’ve got hands of their own after all.
Shrugging out of my jacket, I already feel a few pounds lighter. Thanks to the rain, it’s a lot darker than usual, so I decide that wringing it out would be a good idea. It’d be nice to wear something that isn’t completely saturated before it sees the sight of rain. After getting as much water out as I can, I leave it to hang on the back of a chair. There’s a stack of old newspapers on the ground that someone had the good sense to pick up on a scout, so reaching down I tear a few pages off and do the best I can to dry myself. It certainly doesn’t beat a towel and it leaves black smudges from the ink all over my skin, but it’ll have to do. Next are my boots.
After undoing the laces, I pull them off with a sharp tug and stuff them with more newspaper. Looking down at my feet I let out a loud groan. I hate wet socks. I really don’t want to walk around barefoot, but I should probably put them through the same treatment I did with my jacket. My toes will be numb from cold, but it’ll be better than having them sit in waterlogged boots just waiting for infection to set in.
Once I’m done, I make my way over to the cluster of couches in the corner farthest from the newspaper clad windows. Yep, we use newspaper for most things around here. It’s like the potato of paper and it’s too damn versatile for its own good. I also read it, since that is after all its purpose. And while I doubt that the thin sheets actually do anything to keep the cold out, it does give me a little bit of comfort nonetheless.
The loft is quite large with windows running down the length of one wall and sickly green paint peeling off the remaining three. There are a few large poles that most likely keep the leaky roof from caving in on our heads, and there’s a table and a few chairs along with the couches. We were lucky enough to come across some blankets on a scouting mission the other day. There’s also a bathroom on the floor below. If I understood the book I read correctly, then that bathroom is what you’d call a “godsend.” I don’t even want to think about what we’d do as an alternative. This place is rank enough without the boys messing it up with their inability to take a clean and accurate piss.
I plop myself down on a free couch, letting the muscles in my legs relax as they sink into the worn cushioning. I reach over and snatch one of the blankets draped across Hethar, pulling it over my body. Once I’m as comfy and as warm as I’m going to get, I look at the others. And…they’re sleeping. Not even one of them is awake. What if it wasn’t me who was at the door before? What if it were the Grey Wolves, or the Vigilantes? We’d be sure as dead.
At least I wouldn’t be worried about developing the hot-cold.
I feel like reprimanding them, so I pull my knees up against my body and lock my arms around them to stop my hand from lashing out. If I did that, they’d wake up and I don’t feel like listening to them. Three bullets, I say to myself.
My head snaps up and my body locks.
Tap, tap, tap…doong!
I feel myself relax before throwing the blanket off. I get up and walk over towards the door to see what Ordree and Leon managed to get.
‘Damn—for once, jus’ once, I’d love to beat ya back.’ Ordree shakes her head, smiling at me. Leon pulls the door closed.
I return her smile, knowing that she won’t. I’m too quick for her. I nod towards the bag. ‘Anything good?’
‘Decen’ haul,’ Leon says as he walks over to the table, setting the bag down. He opens it and begins to pull things out. Rope, bread, soup cans, carrots and mushrooms. I feel my face harden when he places a few apples on the table, so I focus on the lines in the wood, tracing the grain with my eyes. Leon interrupts my trail when he places something in its path. My eyes widen. I look over to the couches: they’re still sleeping. But instead of getting angry, I smile. Wide…and real. It feels weird.
‘Fick.’ My voice is quiet, a whisper. ‘Toothbrushes.’ I run my tongue over my teeth and I cringe at the feel of them. I frown though, because there are only two. They found them, not me, so I have no claim.
‘I know. And dun worry; Leo and I can share,’ Ordree says, reading the disappointment on my face. She looks at Leon and he nods.
‘Are you sure?’ I ask, my eyes flitting between them.
‘Yeah. Sharin’ one dun botha me.’
‘I’m hiding this then.’ I slip it into the blade sheath in my boot. This has to be the best thing that’s happened to me since the Guild broke. And then the fact that this toothbrush is the little ray of sun shining through the black cloud that seems to be attached to my head is just sad. But then, a brush is better than nothing, even if I don’t have any paste to go with it. ‘Oh,’ I say abruptly. I almost forgot. ‘Thanks.’
Ordree smiles back at me, her wide grin showing off her crooked teeth. Her face looks so honest, like kind words aren’t the strangest thing to fall out of my mouth. I don’t think I’m mean; I’m just honest. It was something about me that Garridan both admired and tired of at the same time. When I attended the Guild meetings with the Grey Wolves and the Vigilantes, he was always so diplomatic. He listened to everyone in turn and whilst he never lied, he did choose his words carefully when he spoke. The mark of a good Seeker and the rule of a lasting Prinkeps. It was a gift it seemed, and one that I did not possess.
Ordree looks over at the couches and scowls.
‘I know. Olivar was supposed to be on watch and I felt like ripping him a new one when I saw him. But then I’d have to wake him up to do that and…I’d rather not.’
She nods, understanding full well.
‘Oh—there’s somefin’ else too,’ she says, her voice an octave lower but just as raspy. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out something small and shiny. I fight hard to keep the groan from escaping my lips. Chocolate. ‘And since they’re sleepin’…’ Ordree splits the bar into three tiny, yet even portions and we sit at the table in silence to savour the milky goodness.
I’m caught up in my thoughts, staring at the windows. I catch glimpses of the rain outside through gaps in the newspaper, but out of the corner of my eye I see Ordree fidget and I know what’s coming.
‘So, uh. Eden…’ She leans forward to rest her elbows on the table. Leon does the same. ‘What’s the plan?’
I don’t answer her right away, because really, there isn’t one. She may have grown up in the Guild, but she was never a Seeker. She’s naïve. She doesn’t realise…or maybe she has. Maybe she just prefers to stay wrapped up in the comforting cloud of oblivion and ignorance. The truth is that there’s no way we’re getting out of here alive. The most we can hope for is time. Just how much time, depends on what we’re willing to do.
© Meredith Blake Gown 2012